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On Curiosity (Arctic blog)

In childhood we ask: ‘Why is there good and evil?’ ‘How does nature work?’ ‘Why am I me?’ If circumstances and temperament allow, we then build on these questions during adulthood, our curiosity encompasses more and more of the world until, at one point, we may reach that elusive stage where we are bored by nothing. The blunt large questions become connected to smaller, apparently esoteric ones. We end up wondering about flies on the sides of mountains or about a particular fresco on the wall of a sixteenth-century palace. We start to care about the foreign policy of a long-dead Iberian monarch or about the role of pear in the Thirty Years War.

from ‘The Art of Travel’ by Alain De Botton

‘I’m going here.’ I pointed to an island in the Arctic.

‘Are you excited?’

To be honest, excitement was the wrong word. Impending trips mean frenetic organisation and prioritisation. Maybe I should go away more often. It certainly helps to clear away the clutter of a quotidian life.

But I was curious. I had been asked to join an Arctic science expedition, the Catlin Arctic Survey, as communications officer. I don’t need to be cold any more to prove myself and if it hadn’t been for the science, I think I would have declined.

Three weeks before I was due to leave, I started to read: books about travel, books about science, articles on ocean circulation, books about the Polar Regions. Questions started to form.

‘If Hudson Bay is the same latitude as London, why is it twenty five degrees warmer in London?’

‘Is the scenario in The Day After Tomorrow a possibility?’

‘Why are we going all the way to Ellef Ringnes Island to do the science?’

‘How many sets of underwear does a grown man need for a month in a tent without washing?’

‘How do I make what’s happening in the Arctic relevant to a teenager in Barking?’ This is my litmus test for whether I am communicating at the right level, and comes from starting my teaching career in this borough on the Essex- East London border.

The process also made me think about curiosity itself. Am I strange to ask all these questions? Are we trained out of a childlike curiosity, when ‘why’ is a constant refrain? I am often accused of being childlike and I take it as a compliment.

Apsley Cherry-Garrar, the Edwardian polar explorer wrote ‘Exploration is the physical expression of the intellectual passion.’ If he were born a century later he might have been a little less clipped in thought and style. I think he would have gone for ‘Exploration is the physical expression of curious bloody-mindedness.’ The Worst Journey in the World, the book for which he is famed, was the quest not for the South Pole, but for a penguin egg to help better understand evolution.

Over the next month, I will have the privilege of working with some of the world’s leading scientists investigating the Arctic Ocean and finding out more about how our complex world is changing.

I aim to remain childlike and curious in a very grown-up world.

To learn more about the Catlin Arctic Survey visit: www.catlinarcticsurvey.com.

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